I was a kid when Rudolph came on the scene as Santa's ninth reindeer. Actually, Rudolph had already been a storybook character for several years, but he became a major phenomenon in 1949, when Gene Autry recorded the musical version of Rudolph's story. Millions of copies of the cowboy singer's record were immediately sold, including one that an aunt bought for me early in the Christmas season. I played it so many times that year that, as Christmas day approached, my parents hid the record from me.
To be sure, even as a child I puzzled a bit about the story. I had been a passenger in many cars on foggy evenings, and I knew that even two bright headlights could not really cut through the fog. What difference would Rudolph's glowing red nose make as a navigational aid on a foggy Christmas Eve?
But still, the story resonated with me. Any child who has ever been teased on the playground, or who has typically been picked last when sides are being chosen for a game, will know exactly what it is like to be the one about whom "all of the other reindeer/ used to laugh and call him names/ They never let poor Rudolph/ join in any reindeer games."
J.R.R. Tolkein once made the case that the classic fairy story is a unique literary genre. He called it "eucatastrophic," the good catastrophe. Every fairy tale, he pointed out, depicts a seemingly hopeless situation followed by a highly unlikely turn of events, with the result that "they lived happily ever after." (Think handsome prince gets turned into a frog, and then beautiful princess kisses the frog.) Devout Catholic that he was, Tolkein went on to observe that the Christian Gospel has that very same structure -- with the difference being that the Christian story, he said, is "the true fairy tale."
The Rudolph story has that same fairy tale structure. The despised one suddenly becomes the hero. That is not only a powerful lesson to a schoolyard kid. It also speaks to the hopes and fears that visit all of our lives.
I don't hear Rudolph mentioned much in Christmas sermons. But one that stands out in my memory is from those early days. The preacher complained about this new character that had come upon the scene. It was yet another effort, he said, to divert our attention from the true meaning of Christmas.
I'm not inclined to agree. It may be that, properly understood, the Rudolph story can actually nudge us in the direction of the Babe of Bethlehem.
But back to the glowing red nose. The Christmas story is also about a world in which the usual lights are not enough to cast off the darkness that oppresses our lives. Rudolph gave it a nice try, but in the final analysis he was yet another light provider who cannot really get the job done adequately. Here too, the original Christmas story does the other stories one better: The Palestinian shepherds were tending their sheep on a very dark night, when suddenly "an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them." That light show not only went down in history, it is profoundly good news for those of us who, while surrounded by much darkness, know that a wonderful source of Light has come into the world.